Eat, Pray, Fight: One Man’s Journey in and out of Al-Qaeda - Florence Gaub

Book review of: Aimen Dean: Nine Lives: My Time as MI6’s Top Spy Inside Al-Qaeda. London: One World Publications, 2018. pp.480. Hb. ISBN: 9781786073280. RRP: £18.99

Dr Florence Gaub

There is more than one aspect of this jihadi account that resembles Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous story of a woman on a spiritual journey around the world, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. Just as Gilbert, Dean sets out from his hometown in Bahrain because of a profound spiritual questioning. But where she heads to Italy and India, he heads to Bosnia and the Philippines. Although Gilbert seeks meaning through meditation and Dean through combat, the two books are both ultimately a thorough reflection on values, and how far we are willing to go to live true to them. Both do not just detail the often harsh living reality in remote places, they take the reader on a very intimate journey of the mind (even though they also, at times, read like Lonely Planet travel guides).

Dean’s account is more than the story of a Generation X traveller lost in a post-modern world – it is a gripping description of his trajectory from a young Mujahedeen overlooking Sarajevo to an early joiner of Al-Qaeda and ultimately informer for Britain’s intelligence services that makes this book a worthy and touching read.

Dr Gaub is Deputy Director of the European Institute for Security Studies. Her most recent book is The Cauldron: NATO’s Libya Operation. London: Hurst, 2018.

The People’s Republic of China: What Can the UK and its Allies Learn from Competitors and Rising Powers? by Dr Samantha Hoffman

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) development of military power is guided by the clearly defined strategic objective that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) position in power be protected. The objective is described in the CCP’s rhetoric as ensuring “state security”. To maintain state security requires a constant consolidation and expansion of the CCP’s power. The CCP’s processes for modernising the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are never detached from this political objective. An important lens for understanding how the PRC turns a strategic concept into actual capabilities is the “People’s War” concept, which is a concept describing a form of mass mobilization. This Maoist political-military strategy is applied in the present-day through the Party-state leadership’s construction of a national defence mobilisation (国防动员) mechanism, which relies on military-civil fusion. The United Kingdom cannot replicate China’s approach because the UK is not guided by the CCP’s Leninist ideology. Instead, understanding the Chinese approach can inform better decision-making and development of long-term strategies for managing relations with China.

Dr Hoffman is Visiting Academic Fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies and Non-Resident Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Changing Character of War Centre, or of the University of Oxford. © 2018 Changing Character of War Centre. All Rights Reserved. Material in this publication is copyrighted under UK law. Individual authors reserve all rights to their work and material should not be reproduced without their prior permission. 

Strategic Planning, Situation Centres and the Management of Defence in Russia: An Update by Julian Cooper

After long delay, the Russian Law on Strategic Planning was finally signed into law by President Putin in June 2014. From the outset the final law on strategic planning makes it clear that the activity concerns both socio-economic development and ensuring national security. It is presented as a highly structured activity pertaining to all levels of government from the federal to the municipal.

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A World Shaped by Spying – Literature review by Robert Dover

Dr Robert Dover (University of Leicester) reviews:

  • Christopher Andrew, The Secret World, Allen Lane (London), June 2018, pp.960, ISBN-13: 978-0713993660

  • Mark Urban, The Skripal Files: The Life and Near Death of a Russian Spy, MacMillan (London), October 2018, pp310, ISBN-13: 978-1-5290-0688-9

“The clichés around intelligence being a much-misunderstood activity, of it being the ‘hidden wiring’ are clichés precisely because they contain a large kernel of truth. Both the books under review here aim to illuminate this activity, and to perform a kind of public service.

For Christopher Andrew, his canvas is wide and ambitious – he is aiming to explain and understand the role that intelligence has played throughout our development as an organised species, whilst making some narrower points about how policy makers and politicians continually under-perform because they are incapable of learning lessons from intelligence history. Mark Urban’s canvas is more limited, in the sense that he focuses in on an individual caught up in sweeping moments of contemporary history, and then someone who becomes the focus of what might become a pivot in international affairs.

But they are both interested in the same core questions, that of the role and use of intelligence, the impact that intelligence operations can have on individuals and on politics. We can extract broad lessons from both books, and curiously the length of The Secret World does not help it yield more advanced or more numerous lessons – as one might have expected. I will take each book in turn, because that offers some clarity and simplicity, but also because the two books – whilst offering similar qualities – are very different, as will become clear.”

Simultaneous Deterrence: Some Policy Considerations for the UK by Jeffrey Michaels

A new paper from former Visting Research Fellow Dr Jeffrey Michaels

Deterrence has once again become increasingly fashionable in Whitehall following a long hiatus after the Cold War. Unfortunately, as with many fashionable terms, a clear and consistent conceptual underpinning is lacking, and there is little or no common understanding within Government about what the term means or with respect to what issues it should be applied. One further unfortunate consequence of this terminological faddism is that by over-emphasizing deterrence in the official discourse, many problems not previously discussed in terms of deterrence are then labelled and understood as deterrence problems.

Dr Jeffrey Michaels is a member of Defence Studies Department, Kings College, London.

Article from Andrew Monaghan: Mobilization as Russian Grand Strategy

Dr Andrew Monaghan has written an article for Current Russia Military Affairs: Assessing and Countering Russian Strategy, Operational Planning, and Modernization, Edited by Dr. John R. Deni. This is publication of the Strategic Strategy Institute, US Army War College.

Dr Monaghan’s article is titled From Plans to Strategy: Mobilization as Russian Grand Strategy

The funding of nuclear weapons in the Russian Federation by Julian Cooper

The Russian federal budget is characterised by a high degree of non-transparency in relation to spending on defence and security. This particularly applies to the procurement of armaments and spending on the individual services of the armed forces. The funding of nuclear weapons is no exception. The available evidence is fragmentary and a considerable degree of estimation is required to obtain an overall total for spending on Russia's nuclear triad. For Russian specialists, this is a highly sensitive topic and the author is not aware of any published attempt to undertake this exercise within the country. Given the lack of transparency, the author has had no choice but to resort to the 'Sovietological' methods often necessary in the past to estimate economic data relating to the USSR – though this is a methodological issue, rather than a suggestion or foundation that Russia is “returning” to the USSR. Before looking at the available data, it is necessary to examine the institutional structures for nuclear munitions and their delivery systems and then analyse the treatment of expenditure on these structures and how it is handled in the chapters and subchapters of the federal budget.


Julian Cooper is based at the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies, School of Politics and International Studies, University of Birmingham and an Associate Senior Fellow at SIPRI. This paper was originally commissioned by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) as part of a project investigating the funding of nuclear weapons in countries which possess them.

Factors Influencing Russian Force Modernization by Dr. Lester Grau and Charles K. Bartles

A wide-spread Russian perception is that Russia is back as a significant Eurasian power whose opinions and desires need to be understood and accommodated. Russia has regained its national pride, confidence and sense of destiny. Russia still feels threatened from the south and the west and is taking political and military steps to deal with that unease. Historically, Russia feels most secure when it has a strong leader and a strong military. Russians are willing to forego much in order to ensure their security. There are perceived internal and external threats to the Russian state and Russia is addressing these through military reform, military restructuring, force modernization, equipment modernization as well as domestic security restructuring and modernization. Understanding those factors that drive these actions facilitates and potential forms of future war may assist understanding Russian official statements and actions.   

From Non-State to Proto-State: How the Islamic State Turned its Concept into Capabilities by Florence Gaub

Until the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS), jihadism led an asymmetric life: using improvised explosive devices and drive-by shootings, funnelling money through illegal channels and hiding from government forces. This guerrilla existence stood in stark contrast with its grand vision: to establish a state on the territories inhabited mainly by Muslims, and govern according to its own interpretation of Sharia law.

What stood between the reality and the vision was the lack of capabilities needed to first achieve territorial conquest and subsequently governance. In that sense, IS faced the traditional dilemma of all non-state actors: breaking into the monopoly of states requires certain state-like features in the first place. For non-state actors to mobilise the strategic resources necessary and then to translate them into effective military capabilities is only the first (and difficult enough) step; they then have to be ready to hold, and govern the conquered territory when they normally have no governance experience. The formidable challenges they face in this process mean that they normally never achieve either – with the exception of IS, which turned out to be the first non-state actor successfully to turn its concept of statehood into matching capabilities. How did it do that?

From Concept to Capability’: the Russian Approach to Capability Development by Carl Scott

The Russian approach to the development of military capability has evolved significantly since 2008, when a major review process was initiated across Defence. Many years of attempted reform had been stifled by the objections of the Armed Forces and precepts of Marxist-Leninism, which held on to the notion of mass conscription. Significant failings exposed by the conflict in Georgia in August 2008 precipitated a crisis which allowed President Putin to appoint an outsider to defence, Anatoly Serdyukov, to oversee significant and unpopular change. The subsequent transformation programme sought to redress the loss of competitive edge during the years of stagnation that had marked the closing years of the Soviet Union and the chaos of political transition following its collapse.  Widespread conceptual, material and organisational changes were introduced, with particular focus on seeking opportunities to respond to the evolving capability of competitors through emerging technologies.

Challenges in Colombia's Changing Security Landscape, coordinated by Dr Jan Boesten

Dr Jan Boesten has coordinated a section in the Summer issue of Latin American Studies Association's Quarterly Newsletter based on a workshop run by CCW project ConPeace. The full LASA newsletter is available here.

Dr Boesten's section on "Challenges in Colombia's Changing Security Landscape" includes the following articles:

Toward a Shared Vision of Peace
Magali Alba Niño, Jan Boesten, Annette Idler, Juan Masullo, Arlene B. Tickner, Julia Zulver

De 310 páginas a una paz transformadora: El reto de la paz territorial en Colombia
Borja Paladini Adell

Notes on the Implementation of the Peace Agreement in Colombia: Securing a Stable and Lasting Peace
Juan Carlos Restrepo

Perspectiva de la sociedad civil de regiones marginadas ¿Cómo podemos empoderar a las comunidades locales para enfrentar los desafíos de seguridad?
Magali Alba-Niño

Abstract: The University of Oxford’s CONPEACE (From Conflict Actors to Architects of Peace) Program at the Changing Character of War Centre, together with Bogota’s Rosario University and the Simon Bolívar University in Cúcuta, organized a one-day, cross-stakeholder workshop in Bogotá prior to the presidential elections to discuss the changing security landscape in Colombia. The workshop brought together stakeholders from Colombia’s civil society (both urban and rural), the UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and the UN Mission to Colombia (as representatives of the international community), the national government, and national and international academics. This article explores some of the most important insights from our debates. Three points were essential: first, our understanding of security issues can benefit greatly from employing human and citizen security lenses that go beyond mere military presence throughout the national territory; second, the peace process with the FARC is not reversible and should be seen as an opportunity for the new government to create sustainable peace; third, the national government can learn from the collective action and community organizing of civil society in marginalized regions to improve long-term, people-centered security.

Henry Plater-Zyberk's book review of "Elite Warriors: Special Operations Forces from Around the World" by Pukhov and Marsh

by Henry Plater-Zyberk

“Elite Warriors” is an unusual book. It is a product of a respected Russian think-tank, Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), and published in English in the US. The book’s authors cover 14 countries: Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Iran, Israel, Jordan Turkey, China Singapore, Columbia and Algeria.

The Russian Reconnaissance Fire Complex Comes of Age

by Lester W. Grau and Charles K. Bartles

The Soviet Union, and now Russia, have long worked on the development of twin concepts for the detection and assured destruction of high-value targets in near-real time. The Reconnaissance Strike Complex (разведивательно-ударный комплех-RYK) was designed for the coordinated employment of high-precision, long-range weapons linked to real-time intelligence data and precise targeting provided to a fused intelligence and fire-direction center. The RYK functioned at operational depths using surface-to-surface missile systems and aircraft-delivered “smart” munitions. The Reconnaissance Fire Complex (разведивательно-огновой комплех ROK) was the tactical equivalent. It linked intelligence data, precise targeting, a fire-direction center and tactical artillery to destroy high-value targets in near-real time. The Soviets were making good progress in development of both systems before the Soviet Union collapsed. After a period of chaos and adjustment, Russia is back on track and modernizing her armed forces. Part of that modernization is the fielding of a functioning and renamed reconnaissance strike system and reconnaissance fire system. The reconnaissance fire system (разведивательнфая-огновая система ROС) has now been successfully deployed and battle tested and is part of Russian Field Artillery capabilities. In the words of Deputy Chief of Staff of Ground Forces, Major General Vadim Marusin, “Today the cycle (reconnaissance -- engagement) takes literally 10 seconds.”

Russia's Invincible Weapons: Today, Tomorrow, Sometime, Never?

By Julian Cooper

On 1st March this year Vladimir Putin finally delivered his long-awaited annual poslanie, or State of the Nation speech, to the Federal Assembly. With pictures and video clips Putin described six weapon systems that had been developed or were being developed in the following order, the 'Sarmat' heavy ICBM, a nuclear-powered cruise missile, a nuclear-powered and armed undersea drone, a hypersonic missile, 'Kinzhal', launched from a supersonic aircraft, the 'Avangard' glide vehicle for an ICBM, and a laser weapon of unspecified purpose.

Here each system will first be reviewed in detail in the approximate order of its likelihood to enter combat service. Given the secrecy that has hitherto shrouded most of the weapons, the information presented has had to be assembled from multiple sources. Then the reception of the poslanie will be considered, together with some issues arising from it, not least why it was delivered in the form it took.

Julian Cooper OBE is Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies, University of Birmingham and Associate Senior Fellow, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Hanna Notte Book Review: Dmitri Trenin 'What Is Russia Up To In The Middle East?'

Dmitri Trenin, What Is Russia Up To In The Middle East?, Hardcover: 144 pages; Publisher: Polity Press (27 Oct. 2017); Language: English; ISBN-10: 1509522301; ISBN-13: 978-1509522309. 

When Russia’s military intervention in Syria started in September 2015, there was an acute sense among Moscow’s policy experts that the Russian thrust into Syria’s battlefield could be a game changer – not only for the course of that war, but also for Russia’s foreign policy and relationship with the West writ large. Two years later, Dmitry Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has produced an authoritative account of what drives current Russian foreign policy in the Middle East generally, and specifically in Syria.

The author begins with a brief yet instructive historical chapter, but rather than proceeding chronologically, he offers a theme-based analysis of Moscow’s engagement with the region – focusing on “War”, “Diplomacy” and “Trade”. The book’s stated objective of providing ‘a clear and evidence-based view of Russia’s involvement in the Middle East and its impact on Moscow’s broader foreign relations’ (p. 7) is met succinctly and eloquently in this enjoyable read.

Overall, Trenin applauds Moscow’s strategy in the region, arguing that it ‘has demonstrated that a combination of a clear sense of objective, strong political will, area expertise and experience, resourceful diplomacy, a capable military, plus an ability to coordinate one’s actions with partners and situational allies in a very diverse and highly complex region can go a long way to help project power onto the top level’ (p. 134).

Trenin is especially persuasive in identifying the overarching drivers of Russia’s new activism in the Middle East, stressing its geopolitical dimension and pragmatism in particular. Proceeding from the premise that Moscow has ‘no interest, no resources, and no intention’ to supplant Washington as the principal actor or security provider in the Middle East (p. 2), Trenin shows why the military intervention in Syria has ultimately been a “preventative” war for Russia. After Gaddafi’s removal from power in Libya in 2011, the author argues, Syria turned into Russia’s “red line” against perceived US-backed regime change in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.

Yet, while Western pundits frequently assert that Russia’s Syria policy has deliberately marginalised the West, Trenin makes a compelling case for the centrality of status recognition to Russian foreign-policy thinking: ‘Although cheered by some Russians’, he contends, ‘the apparent US demotion has never been the objective of the Kremlin’s policy. Rather, Moscow needed Washington at its side to witness and confirm Russia’s reappearance on the global stage as a great power’ (p. 82). In that context, Trenin also analytically embeds Russia’s Middle East policy within a broader reorientation in Russian foreign policy doctrine, which since 2014 has conceived of Russia ‘as a major single unit unto itself’ in a greater Eurasian neighbourhood, which seeks US ‘respect and cooperation’, rather than to ‘dislodge America’s influence’ (p. 138).

Further, Trenin convincingly exposes the shrewd pragmatism in Russia’s engagement with Middle Eastern actors, whether in its diplomatic dealings or pursuit of commercial gain. The chapter on diplomacy offers especially compelling analysis of the Kremlin’s pragmatic balancing acts in the region, in what are nine “mini case studies” of Russia “double-dating” players with inimical bilateral relationships, such as Turkey and the Kurds, or Iran and the GCC. The author concludes by endorsing the Russian approach as successful, arguing that ‘Russia does not ignore the Middle East’s treacherous divides: it knows that falling into them can be fatal. It seeks instead to straddle them … is busy promoting its own interests with all its partners, fully aware of their own interests’. (p. 112)

In that context, my only criticism of Trenin’s analysis is that it may underestimate the danger of a Russian “mission creep” in Syria, while overstating Moscow’s leverage over regional players. As of early 2018, Russia still maintains a sizeable military presence in Syria, has deployed hundreds of military police to various “de-escalation zones”, and is enabling a regime offensive in the restive Idlib province in Syria’s Northwest, while it is yet to deliver on a viable peace process that engages both the regime and opposition. Trenin himself admits that ‘military action is only effective as long as it furthers a general political strategy’ (p. 86). But while he argues that ‘there was a close connection between Russia’s military operation and its diplomatic activity’ (p. 86) in Syria, that diplomatic activity is arguably yet to bear fruit.

On a related point, the author could have given more than just a fleeting acknowledgement of Moscow’s limited influence over Damascus and Tehran. Arguing that Russia ‘will probably work for a Syria free from foreign military presence, except its own’ (p. 97), the book falls short of providing convincing evidence that Russia has the leverage necessary to achieve this objective. This shortcoming also slightly weakens what is an overall convincing argument about Russia’s “tightrope walk” between adversarial Middle Eastern players: while Trenin indeed succeeds in showing that Moscow ‘has managed to deal with countries and groups that have often been inimical to one another’, he is less convincing in demonstrating Russia’s capacity to ‘sometimes bring [these groups] together as a public good’ (p. 86). Indeed, an ability to talk to all opposing sides in a conflict does not automatically translate into successful mediation, absent credible carrots or stick that Moscow can use in order to elicit concessions from conflict parties.

Though Trenin’s assessment of Russian leverage in the Middle East could have been more critical, he has nonetheless produced an empirically rich and sober account, which could not be timelier in countering with nuance the oft-hysterical claims that there is a robust Russian-Iranian alliance, or that Moscow seeks to oust the US from the region. By bringing out the pragmatic thrust of Russian policy in the Middle East, and carefully dissecting its different drivers, Trenin offers clear answers to those who ask: “What is Russia up to in the Middle East?”


Hanna Notte consults the Shaikh Group regarding their Syria Track II Dialogue Initiative on matters related to Russia, having just submitted her DPhil on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East at the University of Oxford (St. Antony’s College), from where she also received an MPhil in International Relations in 2014. She has held visiting research positions with the Carnegie Moscow Center and the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, the IISS’ Middle East office in Manama, and the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation’s Syria/Iraq office in Beirut. Her research interests focus on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East (especially Syria, Iraq and Iran) and Russian-US relations.

© Changing Character of War Centre. All rights reserved. Material in this publication is copyrighted under UK law. Individual authors reserve all rights to their work and material should not be reproduced without their prior permission. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Changing Character of War Centre, or the University of Oxford.

Review Essay by Carl Scott: 'Russia Military Power 2017' & 'Russian New Generation Warfare Book'

Review Essay by Carl Scott[1]

Russia Military Power 2017 – Building a military to support great power aspirations. Defence Intelligence Agency. Available at:

Russian New Generation Warfare Book.  Asymmetric Warfare Group, Fort Meade. Version 1, December 2016. Available at:

[1] Carl Scott served as the UK Defence Attaché in Moscow from 2011-2016, during which time he was awarded the CBE for his contribution to UK Defence Policy on Russia. Since departing the Armed Forces in December 2016, he has established a consultancy providing advice and insight into the former Soviet Space. © 2018 Changing Character of War Centre. All rights reserved. Material in this publication is copyrighted under UK law. Individual authors reserve all rights to their work and material should not be reproduced without their prior permission. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Changing Character of War Centre, or the University of Oxford.

Commentary: The Terror Problem from Pakistan by Melissa Skorka & Rahmatullah Nabil

Commentary: The Terror Problem from Pakistan by Melissa Skorka & Rahmatullah Nabil

With the Trump administration considering how to break the stalemate between Taliban-allied groups and the government of Afghanistan, terrorists detonated a car bomb in Kabul on May 31, killing more than 150. Afghan intelligence blamed the violence on Haqqani, a terror network with close ties to the Taliban, al Qaeda and Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence...